You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myStatesman.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myStatesman.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myStatesman.com.

Untamed Ireland

Animal encounters expose the wild side of the Emerald Isle.


There’s a bird perched on my head, and I don’t mean a chirpy little sparrow or a wispy hummingbird. I’m referring to a 4-year-old Harris’ Hawk named TJ, and he smells of raw meat.

As TJ calmly repositions his long yellow talons, perfectly at home atop his cranial roost, I pause for a moment to reflect upon how my day has taken this “Snow-White-meets-Alfred-Hitchcock’s-‘The-Birds’” turn of events.

Flash back to a few short hours ago. I’ve just touched down at western Ireland’s Shannon Airport, and soon I’m settled in my digs for the next few days: Dromoland Castle, a five-star, 16th century turreted citadel on 450 acres, encompassing a lake, walled gardens, woodlands and an 18-hole championship golf course.

A vermilion carpet unfurls across the lobby, where two suits of armor glint in the light cast by crystal chandeliers. Wandering deeper into its recesses, I discover stained-glass windows, coffered ceilings, crackling fireplaces and a cozy bar. My room, furnished with a plump couch, desk, wardrobe and two double beds, offers bucolic views over the lawn towards a Grecian-style gazebo.

So far, so fabulous. But then, you would expect nothing less from the ancestral home of the descendants of an 11th century Irish king, which has welcomed such high-profile guests as Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Bono, Jack Nicholson and Richard Branson during the half-century it’s served as a hotel.

Things only improve with a massage at the spa. Then I meet TJ.

He’s one of the fine feathered friends who accompany visitors on a Hawk Walk run by the Dromoland School of Falconry. His handler is an affable chap named Jim Hennigar, who comes equipped with a bagful of raw meat and a bottomless repertoire of puns.

“He’s got eyes like a hawk,” Hennigar quips as he sends TJ into Dromoland’s trees with a flick of his wrist, then demonstrates how the bird would swoop back down to snatch a tiny piece of meat off his thick leather glove.

Next, it’s my turn to try, armed with meat and an outstretched glove. Surprisingly, having a beady-eyed bird of prey diving toward me in a fluttery whoosh isn’t all that frightening. It’s only when TJ starts to inch his way up my arm, eventually settling on my scalp, that things get hairy (ahem).

Fortunately, his handler has no problem coaxing him away. TJ is, after all, a professional — so well-trained that Hennigar employed him as “ring bearer” when he got married on the estate a few years ago.

Coincidentally, Hennigar actually met his bride on a Hawk Walk. “It was love at first flight,” he explains with a cheeky grin as he leads me through the woods to the falconry center. There, he introduces me to Pickles, a dark-breasted barn own with an uncanny resemblance to Voldemort, and Alvin, a big fluffy Bengal Eagle Owl.

“It’s easy to remember his name,” Hennigar says, with a gleam in his eye, “because Alvin likes to eat chipmunks!” (He’s got a million of ’em, folks).

As it transpires, the Hawk Walk is a veritable cake walk compared to my next challenge — horse riding at Ballyhannon House, about a 10-minute drive from Dromoland Castle.

I get sweaty palms just mounting a wooden mare on a merry-go-round, and now I’m staring up the nostrils of what looks like an acre of horse. Fortunately, Ballyhannon’s John Hassett has an uncanny ability to inspire confidence, and his three-hour classes are as much about mastering fear as learning the basics of riding horseback.

So, with a great heave-ho from Hassett, I find myself in the saddle of the reassuringly named “Hector the Protector.” “You’ve already done the two most important things: You showed up, and you got up,” Hassett says encouragingly.

He then leads my companions and me through breathing, relaxation and posture exercises, and more unusually, he asks us to close our eyes and focus on the mood and the movement of the horse beneath us. “Now tune into your own mood, energy level, character and temperament, which is how your horse sees you,” he says, explaining that they connect on a very primal level.

“Imagine that you come home and you’re in bad form, and you bang your keys on the table,” he says. “Your husband or whoever knows you’re in bad form, you know that they know, and maybe they even know why, but no one has said a word. That’s how horses communicate. The horse figures out what you’re thinking before you know you’re thinking it.”

Thus, before we issue a verbal command, he suggests that we “ask with your mind” and envision our steed obeying. “They really want to do what you say,” he insists. “We’re physically inferior, but it’s got nothing to do with strength. If it did, we’d be wearing the saddles.”

Thanks to this jolly Zen horse whisperer, by the time we clip-clop out of the barn for a ride through the countryside, I feel as at home aboard Hector as TJ was atop my head. (It helps, of course, that Hector is moving at the speed of an arthritic tortoise.)

I doubt I’ll be ditching my day job to become a jockey or falconer anytime soon, but I’m infinitely inspired by the cheerful, unflappable demeanor of the folks I’ve met on this journey, who seem so at home with this land and its beasts.

The next time I’m in Ireland, maybe I’ll try my hand at lion taming. It seems a natural progression.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Travel

Family Travel: under the spell of sunny Puerto Rico

You know things are going pretty well when the big family argument is over whether to splash in the rain forest waterfall or loll around on the white-sand beach.  You know things are even better when you realize you can do both in a single day and not tax the patience or interest of three children.   From our weeklong base at a rental...
Travel talk: How to cruise Alaska, navigate California

Q: We finally have a consensus month for perhaps a last big family vacation (parents mid-60s and two mid 20s-daughters). Unfortunately because of everyone's job issues, it's has to be soon - preferably June. I know. That's already in the high cost season. 1) Do you have any recommendations for cruise-lines and/or specific ships for a family trip to...
Security lines and flight delays? This kid’s in paradise
Security lines and flight delays? This kid’s in paradise

I used to think there were two types of people in this world: those who are so nervous about making their flight that they are only truly happy if they get to the airport four hours early, and those who are so blasé about making their flight that they are only truly happy if they get to the airport just minutes before takeoff.  Often these...
Encountering true luxury in St. Moritz
Encountering true luxury in St. Moritz

You are always alone atop a mountain, even in a crowd. At a beach — any beach — a solitary figure standing at the edge of your vision can make you feel intruded upon. On the summit of an Alpine mountain, a chairlift dumping out bystanders six at a time will offer you no companionship. I stand next to my wife at nearly 11,000 feet of altitude...
U.S. travel industry fears a 'lost decade' under Trump

Like many Washington lobby groups, the U.S. Travel Association was quick to congratulate the new president on his victory last November.  "We are encouraged that Mr. Trump's extensive business and hospitality background … will make him a ready and receptive ear," the trade organization said. Upon the Republican's inauguration...
More Stories